As I walk into the conservatory at The Milestone Hotel in Kensington I am warmly greeted by the elegant Mrs Tollman. Offering me a canapé from a delicious array she is eager to chat and get to know a little more about me.
The Milestone is the flagship of the Red Carnation Group in the UK and far from being a distant hotelier of the group she and her husband Stanley founded, Beatrice Tollman, or Bea to her friends, still loves the business and is keenly interested in her guests. When she won the Hotelier of the Year at the European Hospitality Awards 2012, she said “I’m humbled and honoured to have been recognised for doing something that I truly love, each and every day”. And that is something you can see, not only in what she does but the values she has instilled in her staff as well.
Here we talk to Mrs Tollman about how she started out in the industry and why she still loves it to this day.
You are originally from South Africa, did you discover a love of travel at an early age?
I have been extremely fortunate to enjoy a rich life with travel. Travel inspires and educates and I have picked up so many ideas from the wonderful variety of people and cultures I have had the privilege to meet throughout my journeys.
How did you and your husband start out in the hotel industry?
My husband came from a family of hoteliers, but it was completely new to me and I taught myself the trade, with his support. The first hotel that I opened was the Nugget in 1954 in Johannesburg. My most powerful memories of our early years in hotel business were actually of our second hotel, the Hyde Park Hotel in Johannesburg, which I would think was probably the first truly boutique hotel in South Africa, if not the World. We named the main restaurant there The Colony, inspired by the supper clubs of New York and it soon attracted international cabaret stars (e.g. Petula Clark and Trini Lopez) and famous guests such as Marlene Dietrich, George Peppard and Michael Caine. It was a very exciting time, these famous people stayed at our Hyde Park Hotel! We ran three other restaurants from this same hotel.
You have a great passion for food – what sparked this and how have you developed it over the years?
As a wife, mother and now a grandmother, it has always given me great pride and joy to serve a delicious meal to a big, boisterous gathering of family and friends. I believe that most people when dining out or staying at hotels want good value, tasty and satisfying food without too much complication or fuss. I have taken inspiration from various chefs and recipes and added my own personal touches. I have also taken inspiration from family members, I introduced an old family recipe my grandmother taught me of how to make chicken soup – which we serve in every hotel and our guests ask for it at all times of the day and night and LOVE IT!!
You have raised a family of four and now enjoy time with grandchildren, how did you balance family life while still being very involved in the hotel business?
I am very fortunate in that many of my family members are heavily involved the business. We are all extremely passionate about what we do and enjoy bouncing ideas back and forth. We regularly get together around one large big table and catch up over delicious home cooked food.
You are still very hands-on with the hotel business, why do you still love it so much?
I am extremely hands-on, Red Carnation Hotels is my passion and I live it 24 hours a day, 365 days a year no matter where I am in the world. In the hotel industry no day is ever the same and I still get the same enjoyment from consistently giving our guests value, comfort, beautiful rooms, delicious food, but above all the best service. I also get a great deal of satisfaction from working with our amazing staff force. I have been fortunate to work with so many wonderful people in our hotel’s and restaurants over the years. They have touched me with their hard work, dedication and personal stories of triumph and sadness.
What is your secret to running a successful luxury hotel?
Listen to your guests. I read every guest comment from every source because that is where I learn how we can improve; I always say, “Our guests teach us our business”.
You and your husband are both philanthropists, what causes are close to your heart and why?
All proceeds from my cookery book A Life in Food are donated to my two favourite UK charities, The Starlight Children’s Foundation and Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children (The Tick Tock Club). Being a mother and a grandmother I have a great deal of empathy with any family that is facing a challenging time with children’s health. The work that both charities do is remarkable, especially considering the heartbreaking stories that they are so often dealing with.
What is next for you?
With a hotel collection like Red Carnation Hotels, the work is never done. I am continuously keeping abreast on the latest technology and ensuring that this is encapsulated in our hotels whilst still supporting green initiatives.
What three universal truths do you live by?
1. It is important to be passionate about your work. If your work is meaningful to you, your work life will be a joy and this will reflect well in everything that you do.
2. Listen carefully to feedback. Whether this is from guests, colleagues, friends or family there are always things to learn than can enhance the way you live your life.
3. Food brings people together. Gathering friends and family together for a fantastic meal is a bonding experience and helps maintain close relationships in a world where everyone’s lives are getting increasingly busy.